Everyday Life

The Art of Medieval Beekeeping

Do you ever go about a daily task or art and wonder how it was done before modern technology?
For example, how did they tell the time? How did they know what day of the week it was?

How did they do the laundry without detergent?

Well, we know the answers to most of these things but have you ever wondered how a medieval bee keeper avoided being stung before the invention of the modern bee suit? Probably not!

I came across an image of a history enthusiast attempting to recreate a medieval beekeeper outfit recently and it grabbed my attention instantly.

It goes down as one of the most unexpected, funny and creepy things I have seen in a good while. I later discovered that they had based their garb on a pencil drawing from the Netherlandish School dating to the 1560s.

I’d be more scared of the beekeeper than the bees dressed like that.

I mean, did they really wear a basket on their face? Surely this would make it difficult to see.  Modern day beekeeping is a coveted art so I want to know how did they do it in days gone by?

Beekeeping: A Brief History

Humans are believed to have been consuming honey and wax dating back at least 10,000 years. Cave paintings depict honey being ‘harvested’ or stolen from wild bee nests in trees by hunters.

Evidence of intentional beekeeping also exists from 7000-year-old drawings, found in Spain. And in ancient Egypt recorded evidence exists of a form of organised beekeeping being practiced around 2500 years ago.

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In pictures found in the Sun temple of 5th dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh, Niuserra, beekeepers are shown blowing smoke into hives to remove honeycombs.

In England, there exists evidence to suggest that beekeeping was being practiced in pre-Roman times. Among Anglo-Saxon communities there is evidence that honey was valued as currency and used to pay rent and other taxes. There is also reference to the use of beeswax, and mead (an alcoholic beverage made with honey, yeast and water). 

The Importance of Honey

Honey has a number of properties which make it desirable apart from being a natural sweetener. Due to it’s low moisture and acidic content bacteria does not form so honey never really goes out of date. In 2015, some 3000-year-old Egyptian honey was discovered and was said to still be edible! 

Bee swarm
It took a brave (or stupid) man or woman to first realise honey was edible!

What’s more, during its production, the bees add their own enzymes to honey, and these enzymes produce hydrogen peroxide.

Today, we understand that hydrogen peroxide is a mild antiseptic and can be applied topically to prevent minor cuts and grazes from becoming infected. It can also be used as a mouth rinse to relieve any minor mouth irritations such as ulcers and cold sores as it has antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties. 

The Cost of Honey

For medieval society honey also had monetary value and could be accepted as payment in lieu of actual money for all sorts of things. Beeswax was an essential material and had multiple uses within medieval society.

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Wax was integral to candle production which explains why most monastic gardens had their own hives as churches used large volumes of candles. It was also used to create a form of polish used to preserve wood, leather and even archer’s bow strings. It also helped with waterproofing and when molten could be used to seal jars, bottles and important documents.


Honey was also the main ingredient in the ancestor of all alcoholic beverages, mead. Enjoyed by all levels of society, mead or ‘honey wine’ was made with a mixture of fermented honey, water and yeast. Other ingredients such as fruits, spices, flowers and herbs were occasionally added to create different varieties and influence the flavour.

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Mead had a varied alcohol content from around 5–20% and there is evidence of its residues in ancient Chinese pottery from 7000 years ago! This ‘drink of the Gods’ also had an important role to play in medieval society. It is suggested that the consumption of mead every night for one month after a wedding would improve the chances of the couple’s fruitful union. It is therefore believed to be the origin of the term ‘honeymoon’! 

An Idiot’s Guide to Medieval Beekeeping?

During the Middle Ages many farmsteads would keep a beehive to garner their own supply of honey. However, there is precious little textual evidence of the bee keeping practices of the day.

Beekeeping is an art that has been around for thousands of years.

Much of our knowledge of medieval beekeeping is gleaned from an earlier 10th century Byzantine text called the Geoponika. This text was commissioned by Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII in 10th century Constantinople.

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Constantine was known to be a scholar himself and a great patron of education and the arts. He felt there were too many instructive texts from older sources floating around so he had them organised and compiled into large compendia on key subjects. The Geoponika was a twenty-book collection on the agricultural practices of the day.

The Geoponika

It just so happens that the Geoponika has a whole chapter on bees and beekeeping! According to a translation of the text, “the bee is the wisest and cleverest of all animals and the closest to man in intelligence.”

That is quite a claim, however, the text goes on the praise the bee whose products are of utmost use to man. Bees also follow the orders of a single leader (then understood to be a King) unquestionably. This was a fitting example for medieval society, according to the monarch at least. 

Bees can be dangerous. Here a medieval husband protects his wife and baby from a bee swarm.

The text helpfully includes a description of what makes the best 10th century beehive!
The best hives or swarm containers are made from beechwood, fig, pine or Valonia oak.

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Exact dimensions are also given and it is recommended that the outside of the hive should be rubbed with ash and cow dung to guard against rot.

The detail given is extraordinary. Suggestions are offered on the angle of the hive based on wind direction to ensure breezes can be harnessed to keep the container free of mould and cobwebs!

Moving Home

If hives need to be moved, the keeper is advised to do this gently and at night. The hive should be wrapped in skins and repositioned before dawn. This is to avoid any damage to the combs within and to reduce risk to the bees themselves. 

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Directives on the care for bees is also provided. And includes helpful hints such as leaving out wine mixed with honey in a basin as a good food source for young bees. But you should be sure to put leaves and sticks into the basin so that the feeding bees do not drown.

According to the Geoponika, during the first ten days of spring it is our job to clean out the hives to remove cobwebs and prevent overcrowding of honeycombs. This is to be done by emptying the hive of bees using the smoke of dried dung. Honey should be harvested in this way tri-annually in May, summer, and October.

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Pains are taken to instruct that not all the honey should be removed as this may anger the bees and they will stop working. Suggested amounts are given for the different harvests along with guidance on the appearance of the best quality honey. The best honey is a pale translucent yellow in colour. The texture should be smooth and when pulled the honey should remain in a long string which will raise to a point and should sink back slowly. It should also have a pleasant aroma. 

How can the Keeper of Bees Avoid Being Stung?

Advice to avoid being stung ranges from smoking the hive to driving the majority of bees away to covering yourself with various concoctions for which recipes are given.

Basket cases. The beekeepers of the medieval age.

Manuscript images of medieval beekeepers show many of them wearing white or light-coloured clothing. This is no coincidence and further investigation reveals the logic behind this. Was it so that they could see any bees that landed on them? Or because honey was harvested in warmer weather did wearing light colours keep the beekeeper cool? Possibly both, however, modern research also suggests an evolutionary logic.

A Sting in the Tail

Like any living creature, bees have adapted to protect themselves and their hives against predators.  The animal predators that traditionally target bees have dark fur. Approaching a hive wearing dark coloured clothes can trigger an aggressive response from a hive’s defenders. Wearing light colours makes you appear less of a threat and decreases your likelihood of being attacked on approaching the hive. 

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Having looked at the illustrations which accompany historic writings, it appears that the beekeepers of the past don’t always wear a cloth over their face.

Some are holding loose fabric draped about their person which could easily be pulled up for protection. Other images suggest the wearing of a veil over the face and later there are images from the 1500s suggesting the wearing of a hood. This is fitted with a lattice work structure.

Honey comb
Honey in its purest form. What’s not to like?

The latter is what has given rise to some rather exaggerated modern interpretations of the medieval beekeeper get up. A quick internet search should reveal these attempts at reconstruction. 

Clothing wasn’t the only method of avoiding bee stings. Often there were rules that the beekeeper should follow so as not to antagonise bees.

Columella, a Spaniard who wrote extensively about the Roman practices of beekeeping in his book De Re Rustica, offers any would be beekeepers this advice, “the day before he has abstained from sexual relations and does not approach them when drunk and only after washing himself, and that he abstain from all edibles which have a strong flavour, such as pickled fish and all the liquids which accompany them, and also from the acrimonious stench of garlic and onions and all other similar things”.

A Hive of Activity

There exist some sources which suggest that the medieval beekeeper would have harvested honey by killing the bees through plunging the hive into hot water.

This seems at odds with the advice given and the pains taken to care for and protect bees and their hives.

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I think it more likely that the medieval beekeeper was just as careful as their modern counterpart. They would ensure that a hive could remain a productive source of honey year on year.

Did they wear baskets on their heads?  Maybe, maybe not but either way, I know what I am dressing up as this Halloween!